If an online retail giant launched an airline...NewsBy Sarah Kennedy Ellis | August 14, 2013Share This article was originally published on Tony Hsieh, CEO of shoe online retail giant Zappos and author of Delivering Happiness, has a habit of delivering inspired keynotes - he makes people think about what they do and how they do it.And so, at SXSW’s inaugural V2V event for technology startups and innovators that kicked off earlier this week in Las Vegas, Hsieh was at it again.His presentation predictably touched on the core values upon which Zappos was built. That included of course its unwavering commitment to delivering the very best service in retail. Period.But this topic always begs for a contrasting example of how not to do things.And predictably, airlines more often than not end up as the miserable derriere of this never-ending joke.Hsieh’s speech followed suit as expected, but while gently he jabbed airlines for their poor commitment to great customer service, he more interestingly dropped a soundbyte worth examining and even dreaming about a little further just for a moment.Don’t you dare tease us, TonyHe pontificated with the crowd: "Who knows, maybe we’ll launch Zappos Airlines one day."This statement naturally was met with a few knowing "good luck!" chuckles, as well as cheers from fanboys egging him on to do exactly that.But after listening to Hsieh’s latest keynote, he just might be the one who has a shot.He may be able to change the world, but can he run a successful airline?His ambition to change the world through a company like Zappos is so understated, yet so resoundingly strong in its commitment to bold, brash ideas and executing on visions like their newest venture to revitalize downtown Las Vegas rendering it nearly unrecognizable.Zappos is taking over the old Las Vegas city hall building and renovating it as we speak to become its new headquarters, right in the middle of the city.He has grand plans to completely change a community in just a few years, and they are doing it.They are so committed to investing in the heart of their city… From a park made entirely of shipping containers to a $200M fund including $50M dedicated to local small businesses, he is exponentially accelerating the pace of revitalizing and rebuilding his company’s community.Why? Because he believes that by investing in the community, you build a more productive, innovative city and thus more productive employees and ultimately the companies they work for.Hsieh is arguably single-handedly changing downtown Vegas for the better, forever, and he’s doing so spending less money and fewer years than an airline takes to simply repaint its fleet.If anyone can pull it off, it just might be himAfter seeing what I saw this week, if there’s any company that just might be crazy enough and capable enough to make a serious run at launching an airline, I’d put Zappos at the top of that list.After hearing how much Zappos is inverting its focus to center externally round the community, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hsieh pitch a community-owned and operated airline as at least one option worth considering.That’s right. Hang on to your "Herb is my Homeboy" hats and "Can’t Hold A Candle to Crandall" t-shirts, everyone. This is unfortunately just hopeful speculation at best.But even so, it’s fun to imagine that it just might get that interesting if a company like Zappos decided to play ball. If so, I’ll bring the popcorn."Intel Inside" for airline customer service?Instead of the daunting feat of launching an airline, what if Zappos decided to team up with an airline to both do what they do best – together?Zappos and any airline willing to experiment with customer service innovation could provide "Zappos Inside" service experiences that are tailored to meet the personalized needs of travelers, while airlines continue doing what they do best: operations, revenue management, keeping the big metal bird safely flying 400MPH in the sky… that kind of thing.It might sound impossible, but my point is that given the right partner or open door, Hsieh could find a way to improve the travel service experience if we simply will find an opportunity that enables him to do so in a way that makes sense for his business and his brand.It’s not all bad, as we know thanks to brands like JetBlue and the Virgin family of global airline brands. Both have arguably become two of the most beloved and powerful airline brands in the industry over the last 10-15 years.Things are improving somewhat, so why is it that airlines continue to be the laughing stock of every keynote address at conferences like SXSW?Despite massive strides from the Virgin and JetBlues of the world, is this a sign that the market really does have more than enough room for a Zappos Airlines? And if so, would Hsieh really consider it?I couldn’t help but ask Hseih that million dollar follow-up question to find out."I’d like to at least fantasize about it," Hsieh says in response to whether he’s ever considered launching an airline. "Today, with most airlines you can’t differentiate between which one has worse customer service. And I think there are interesting ways to innovate on that."Share this quote He then tackled the notorious issue of delays. He assumed 20% of flights are delayed for an hour on average for the sake of the discussion, and he believes this presents airlines with a great opportunity to drastically invert the service model around delays."If you do the math, and we’re talking about 20 minutes of average delay across all of your flights in a given year… Instead of pissing off your passengers, why not make them excited [when they are delayed]?" he asks. "Raise ticket prices [the same percentage of dollars that you average delays in minutes], and then every time a flight is delayed, pay each passenger a dollar for every minute they have to wait… and the math works out."Share this quote He closed out his discussion on this topic by posing these questions: Why can’t we do the same thing [we do in offline businesses on the ground] on a plane?Why can’t it be an awesome flying bar in the sky?Travel industry Pro Tip brought to you by the Notorious B.I.G.These are the same questions Sir Richard Branson asked, continues to ask and has been innovating around for many years. And both he and Hsieh are right.I’m certain we’d all welcome the opportunity to see exactly what a Zappos Airlines might look like if they gave it their best shot.One might imagine a dream world in which airlines outlandishly commit themselves to delivering happiness to the travel experience, knowing the same secret Hsieh figured out long ago – if you get the service & the culture right, the rest will follow.And as he shared in Monday’s keynote, we should all heed the wisdom of his favorite quotable rap icon and mine, the Notorious B.I.G. with this piece of business advice: "Don’t chase the paper, chase the dream."Share this quote Unfortunately for us all, until "dreams" and passion become accepted forms of payment at Jimmy’s Jet Fuel Junction, we may forever scare off Bransons and Hsiehs of today from delivering what they are capable of tomorrow – happiness in an industry that has simply forgotten how to smile.NB:Shoe plane image via Shutterstock.